Sicily in Seven Acts

We spent 72 hours in Sicily this past weekend.  Here's a few of our most memorable encounters from the trip.

Act 1: Giacomo, the sweeper

Early one morning on the terrace, a cheerful, Sicilian man in his early 60s came to sweep. “English? Deutsch?” he asked.   We answered “English.”  He nodded, said "No English" and proceeded to talk to us in German. Thanks to the ein bisschen German my husband knows we learned the sweeper’s name was Giacomo, he had worked for Interpol for 7 years in Wiesbaden, Germany but was now retired from the police force and collecting his pension.  After 15 minutes of careful sweeping and constant chatter in the second language he was proud to know, he downed an espresso, bid us "Arrivederci" and hopped in his car, on to the next terrace.

Relais Parco Cavalonga, Donnafugata - Sicily

Act 2: Lovers at Sea

One afternoon we were trekking along a long, mostly deserted beach with sand dunes and a scented eucalyptus park on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.  So strong was the head wind that we bundled up in all the clothes we had, only our toes in the water.   After not seeing a soul for a long time, we spotted a couple in the distance who were changing into their bathing suits – she only half of one and he in a very small one.  Locals, we reasoned.  By the time we reached them, which was truly no time at all, they had already run into the sea and were kissing, seemingly unaware of the wind or water temp.  Love does, cold water be damned.  Not long after, wind now at our back, two young emboldened American boys shed their wind breakers and took the plunge too.

The beach of the Forest Reserve, Randello - Sicily

Act 3: The American

While playing cards in the hotel lobby I overhead a conversation at the front desk.  Without line of sight, the accent confirmed the guest was a fellow American, though from the opposite and more candid coast than I.  Said she to the obliging woman at the front desk:  “We don’t want a late dinner.  Does this restaurant have their menu online?” Stuffing down laughter given what even I knew to be an absurd question in Sicily, the woman at the front desk did not miss a beat when she responded: “No, no menu online … but if you’d like, I can call them …” What happened next was a protracted three-way conversation where dinner was pre-ordered and would be ready on arrival but not before the American asked, “Can you ask them if they have anything with beans.  My husband likes beans.” It is hard to make slow food go fast, but some are willing to try.

Relais Parco Cavalonga, Donnafugata - Sicily

Act 4: Roberto, the waiter

Speaking of slow food, one night we were seated at a four top in a much too brightly lit restaurant at 8pm.  In walked a man, who took off his coat, spoke to the hostess and made a bee-line for our table.  Roberto had been called in from his night off to speak to the Americans.   Dinner he explained was a set menu of 12 starters, two pastas and a whole fish.  The only question was whether we wanted a mix of cooked and uncooked seafood.  We said we’d take both, our two boys included, and he turned to the hostess and said with conviction, “QUATTRO.”   When we jokingly asked Roberto why the restaurant was full of men, he said without a note of sarcasm: “It’s like that every day except Saturday night and Sunday brunch.”  “By the way” he continued, “the only rules are to say STOP when you are done."

During the next four hours we tasted everything the sea had to offer, several things requiring explanation, twice involving Roberto’s wife feeding me with a spoon.  As our adventuress children eventually fatigued, Roberto’s wife serendipitously poured them half a glass of Coke Zero while she bounced between the tables of men, sipping the rest of what was left of the can.  The Owner, whose photos on the wall suggested he was both restaurateur and local politician, roamed the tables of the men he clearly knew well, helping himself to their mussels as he went.  

By time the eleventh starter came, or so we thought, our middle son asleep at the table, with his long checked out younger brother, woke briefly and laughed out loud when three more starters came all at once. After our third attempt at STOP was insistent enough to be received, the second pasta and whole fish were waved off.  It came as no shock at the end of the meal, given the squishy counting of starters, when there was a shotgun exchange between the servers.  Out came a calculator, a shrug of approval and the presentation of the calculator screen in lieu of a bill with the final question:  “Lemoncello?  Grappa?” 

Skallelo, Scoglitti - Sicily

Act 5: Antonio, the shopkeeper

At 2:10 pm in the central square of a Baroque town in Southern Sicily, gelatos in hand, we stood nose to glass at a trendy little t-shirt shop.  It teased us come hither with its colorful window signage only to find on approach it closed for siesta.   Sensing our curiosity and perhaps our wallets, the shopkeeper unlocked the door and invited us in.  Right away it was clear Antonio was less interested in our wallets and more interested in telling us the story of the shop. 

The shop was mostly t-shirts with unique pithy Sicilian proverbs – such as “The more you think about something, the bigger will be your mistake.”—which had been given life in an ironic way through their designs.   Started in this small town there were now 43 of their shops across Sicily.  Proud of their proverbs, Antonio showed and explained each one of the “joking” shirts which we heard as “jogging” shirts until about the 4th one. Once our private consultation with the lively Antonio was finished, we left the store that should have been closed for siesta with a souvenir of Sicilian wisdom: “If you want the bike.  You have to pedal.” 

Siculamente, Ragusa Ibla - Sicily

Act 6: airport passengers

Before the plane had come to a full stop, in a collective disregard for the seat belt sign the Sicilians stormed the aisle.  Only when we deplaned into the brilliant Sicilian sun did I understand.  The prize they were racing for was coming home.  When we were boarding the plane 72 hours later, I chatted up a friendly looking passenger.  “Are you from here?”, I asked.  “Yes, but it had been 10 years since I’ve been back.” he said without a note of longing.  “How was it?” I asked.  “The same as when I left 30 years ago.  Same roads.  Same problems.  Same everything.” No matter where you're from, I remembered, coming home can cut both ways.  

Comiso Airport - Sicily

Act 7: Anna's father

At breakfast one morning we had a lovely conversation with some people:  Anna, a Sicilian born, now living in Brussels part owner of the hotel we were staying in; her husband Carlos who of all things was head of Tourism & Emerging and Creative Industries for the European Commission; and Anna’s elderly father who was still living in Sicily only 30 kilometers away.  Anna's father eagerly shared with us many of his favorite places in the nearby towns. 

Later that day after repeatedly striking out in search of a simple pizza lunch, we ended up at a fish restaurant by the sea mentioned by Anna’s father.  Given the bleak exterior we only went in because we were dejected and it was recommended.  As is often the case when we judge a book by its cover, we were led upstairs to a beautiful dining room full of well-dressed families overlooking the sea.  Lunch, the server explained, was either pasta or fish.  After, he said - in a barely audible voice - 22 starters. Believing our marathon dinner the night before to be a once in a lifetime experience, we agreed to chuck our desire for “simple” and tucked in for remainder of the afternoon.  If we were going to have back to back epic meals at least we were following a true Mediterranean diet.

An hour into an even better meal than the first, a group obviously well-known to the restaurant staff and clientele walked in.  It was Anna and company.  Only 6 hours into our friendship we were the first people they warmly greeted.  Anna’s father, whose zest for life and people reminded me of my Sicilian grandfather, told the waiter to bring us the best bottle of Sicilian champagne. Maybe it was the 22 starters or the champagne or both but for the hours that followed my vision blurred between restaurant and family table. 

Viri Ku C'e, Scoglitti - Sicily

In loving memory of my Sicilian Poppop, James Baldanza.  At the table of course.

Thailand: Bangkok and Beach

As the most visited city in the world Bangkok needs another travel blog like we need a sixth star to the spicy rating system.  And yet here I go.

I'm writing this because a) I said I would b) I need an outlet to justify carrying around my camera in 95 degree heat and c) when I set out to  plan our trip to Thailand I was completely overwhelmed by all the options.  Guidebooks are fantastic travel aides but nothing beats personal referrals to get you pointed in a direction.  So thank you to several of you who shared your Thailand travel stories and those who assured me that the probability of encountering a snake were about as likely as my family catching dengue fever.  Guidebooks, like State Departments, are required to tell you about all the potential threats and experienced traveler friends are there to remind you 30 million tourists made it safely home from Thailand last year.  

(By way of full disclosure, none of us got dengue fever but we did get touches of a few angry somethings in our tummies and while there weren’t any snake sightings the jellyfish were as reported ... except so much bigger.)

I am also writing this to give you the confidence to plan your own trip rather than buy one of those all-inclusive packages.  Here’s something I learned from my 18 year old who studied tourism in Thailand as part of his Geography class … when you buy an all-inclusive package to Thailand from a travel company based outside of the country  80% of the money you spend leaves the Thai economy.  80%! That leakage is disheartening when you consider how much Thailand’s economy depends on tourism and how hard they work to make you feel welcome.  So if you can, DIY! 

I should say at the outset that there are two ways to do Thailand – the budget way and the more comfortable way.  If the former, I’m not sure these pointers will be of much service but if air conditioning is a prerequisite of your travel jam then maybe …

1.  Pick a hotel or apartment that will serve as an oasis from the chaos.  Bangkok is a stimulating, exhausting city so you will be glad if you splurge a little on lodging where you can recharge your batteries.  I'd also encourage hotel over apartment as hotels are plentiful and the Thai service which would be absent in an apartment is so warm it would be a shame to miss it.

We spent three nights in Bangkok at the beginning of our trip and one additional night at the end.  The first hotel we stayed in was the Metropolitan Como, a contemporary hotel set back on a quieter road from the embassy-lined and busy Sathorn Road in Silom.   It’s a 169 room hotel with beautiful people, close to shopping with a large 20 meter lap pool, a spa that looked fancy and the world-renown Nahm restaurant (ranked 22nd in the world.)   We ate there and it was fabulous and probably one of the most affordable of the restaurants in the top 100.  As a family we had two adjoining, very spacious rooms with a full service breakfast included.   You know it’s full service when there are multiple french toast options and quinoa porridge on the menu. 

The second hotel we stayed in was the Ariyasomvilla, a traditional Thai style house that was converted into a 24 room hotel with lovely gardens set close to the well-known Sukhumvit Road which is interesting by day and too-many-single-white-males-walking by night.  The English owner previously worked building Shangri-La Hotels in Asia so the boutique hotel which was initially his father in law’s house has a quality aesthetic and service approach.  In addition to the gorgeous rooms with let-me-sleep-longer-linens they also have a very nice non-meat restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and mojitos.   This hotel is highly rated on Trip Advisor and for good reason, especially if you want a more authentic Thai place to stay.

2.  Get out on the streets and walk.   Bangkok is a city of crazy contrasts where skyscrapers and upscale malls are scattered like seed without regard to neighborhood.  Street commerce - especially the food stalls -  is every bit as busy as places with a street address (assuming you knew how to read them.)  You need to smell the smells – most good, some challenging -- and watch people do or create something with what my Western sensibilities found to be a ridiculously small amount of personal space. 

When you are done walking, the BTS Skytrain will almost always be faster than a taxi.  And because it’s elevated, the air conditioned Skytrain also gives you a great bird’s eye view of the city.  It’s not an economic decision but a time one as the traffic in Bangkok makes Seattle traffic look breezy.  The few times we asked the hotel for a taxi, they suggested the Skytrain or Metro.  The traffic of cars, vans, pink taxis, scooters, tuk tuks and pedestrians in Bangkok is more “civilized” than in other parts of Asia because everyone is following the same rule: “just keep moving.”  Be aware however that “just keep moving” at 11:30pm without traffic in a tuk tuk means way faster than you will be comfortable without a seatbelt. Oh and do yourself a favor and accept the transport service to and from the airport if your hotel offers it. 

3.  Hire a private tour guide to see the city’s major temples and attractions.    If tours aren’t normally your thing (our case) or if you tend to do larger group tours, I would urge you to hire a private tour guide.  The price is right (very cheap) and with a private tour guide you can craft your own agenda and go at your own pace which is important for when you start melting or need some sticky rice with mango.  In addition to getting the benefit of their knowledge you will also save boatloads of time not having to worry about navigation. Now I know some of you like your map challenges but even my world-tested navigation team agreed it was nice to be off duty from maps when trying to cross a city with the purpose of visiting temples, the heart and quiet soul of the very busy city. 

Private tour guides is a competitive business in Bangkok so there are many affordable options but do book ahead.  Like weeks/months ahead.  I booked an 8 hour day with Your Thai Guide and requested Nina as our travel guide.   Opting for public transportation instead of private van, we did the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and a canal tour through Thonburi by private long tail boat plus lunch which amounted to a very full day.  We learned and saw more during one guided day than we could have manufactured ourselves in three days.  Nina was fantastic and like so many Thai people enjoys kids (even mine after 8 hours!) and I would highly recommend her to anyone. 

4.  Do a food tour.   Food is so central to the Thai culture and every meal, breakfast included, is a feast.  There is much food being sold on the streets as in the restaurants and so you will want some guidance on what and where to eat. 

We did two food tours and no one in the family can say which was better.   The first one we did was a cooking class and market tour called Cooking with Poo.   The class starts at the Klong Toey wet market where we saw all kinds of local Thai produce along with insects, chicken feet and a host of other things we didn’t know were edible. 

After the market tour and rain storm, we headed back to the cooking school (via van) which is still in the slum where it started.  Working in two shifts of six people, each of us – my kids included - got to make/prepare 3 Thai dishes.  Now that they’ve made green curry I have skilled help to pound the paste.  The food part was great fun, instructional enough to learn a few new tricks, but hearing Poo’s story and the story of the cooking school was the highlight.  Her testimony to the beauty of community meant that in addition to leaving with tummies full our eyes saw more than the slum when we left. 

The second food tour with Bangkok Food Tours was completely different.   We choose the Best Eats Midnight Food Tour by Tuk Tuk as a means of experiencing both street food and late night Bangkok in a slightly more civilized way.  Even though it doesn’t qualify as a hidden secret and it took a little of the mystique away when we bumped into another group of 12 with the same company at a few of our stops it is still completely worth doing.  With eight stops along the way – including a stop at Wat Pho at night to let the previous food stop digest, a night time flower market and a rooftop drink stop along the river with spectacular views of Wat Arun – you get to sample a lot of food and connecting the stops via tuk tuk was much like having an amusement park ride between courses (fyi, you do sign a waiver).  At 11:30pm one of my children (not the youngest) was face down asleep alongside his plate of Bangkok’s best pad Thai.  (We took it to go.)

5.  Once you go deep and experience Thai culture in Bangkok, head to the beach for some relaxation.  There are lots of options in every direction so give consideration to the way you most prefer to unwind.  We are of the not big resort, golf club or national luxury hotel brand type but there are lots of options if that is your speed.  After exhaustive research I finally choose the Aleenta Hua Hin which is a local boutique resort in the little market town of Pranburi, 30 km south of Hua Hin (about 3 hours by van from Bangkok.) 


Set on an un-commercialized stretch of long empty beach nestled between “baht billionaire villas” and local fish cafes, we spent five nights in our 3 bedroom villa which was about 100 meters away from the main Aleenta building.  We did nothing noteworthy except to enjoy the peaceful beach, a few massages and the afternoon entertainment of kite surfers.  You know you are staying in “Old Thailand” when you see a man walking his sheep on the beach.   Aside from a few lunches a the local fish cafe, we ate all our meals at the two very good but shy of excellent Aleenta restaurants with a mix of Thai and westernized fare where all the organic food is sourced within 30 kilometers.

Aleenta means “a rewarding life” ... I'll spare you any more details ... but you can trust me when I say after 22 countries, all three boys declared this "the best trip ever."

One Tip for Prague

Rick Steves said, “Eastern Europe has been really trendy. Prague is the best-preserved city in the region … and the best beer in Europe lands on your table there for 50 cents.”

When and if you go to Prague, I have one tip and one tip only (assuming you have remembered your camera already!):

Buy this.  The Prague Foodie Map.  It’s a PDF guide of the best eating and drinking in Prague written by true food-loving locals with a Google Map you can download to your phone.

You’ll already have people like Rick Steves and the guide book to tell you to visit the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and Old Town Square but you’ll need someone to tell you where to get that 50 cent beer. 

Answer: Lokal.   It’s a pub too with sausage and goulash but really it’s a traditional beer hall with one beer - Pilsner Urquell – on tap.  Leave the little people at home.  This is a place for serious consumption and dirty floors.

You don’t have to be a foodie (so done with that word!) or flush with Czech Koruna (in the EU but not on the Euro) for the Prague Foodie Map to make sense for you.   It’s useful for all palettes and budgets.   You'll want someone to tell you were to get a "Chlebicek" - the classic Czech open-faced sandwich after all the beer (Bistro Sisters) and where to go if you must have tacos.

Answer: Las Adelitas.  It's in a basement and we did not care because it was real Mexican with a salsa bar and jalapenos and a queue to prove it.

The Google Map part of this guide is key.   When you are touring a city it’s much more helpful to see recommended places in map versus list view and where you can set expectations with your traveling companions as to "how much farther."   As a food lover, traveler and marketer, the Prague Foodie Map is one of the most well done travel finds I’ve actually used.  The authors Zuzi and Jan really know the best eats in their city and now how to package it an way that's accessible for users.  I wish this kind of thing was more available in other cities. They also cover shopping but I was less impressed with those recommendations.  (Not exactly sure Prague is a great shopping destination ...)

After our first score at Sansho, an Asian fusion set menu dinner, followed up by lunch at Dish Fine Burger Bistro (where reservations are required even for lunch) we did not detour from Zuzi and Jan’s suggestions.  Our two other excellent dinners were at Cestr, a modern Czech canteen, and Field, an upscale Czech restaurant focusing on local ingredients.   We did other places on the guide for lunches and coffee and were never disappointed but the three places for dinner were all surprising homeruns.  Who even goes to Prague for food?  Now you can!

We traveled to Prague right before Christmas when the Christmas markets were in full effect (as good or better than some in Germany.)  It’s truly a magnificent city and one that you can “do well” in three or four days.   While the hotel options are plentiful, we stayed in the well located and new Hotel UNIC Prague which had great family rooms done up in the color purple and delicious American sized included breakfasts.  There I go again with the food ...

My inlaws are heading to Prague in less than two weeks.  They've already booked their three dinners.  I can be quite persuasive. 

Our London Briefing

Good morning, Seattle.  Good afternoon, Luxembourg.

Here’s what you don’t need to know about our trip to London but may find useful. 

  • Airbnb and big cities.

Always a bit of a gamble, right?   Everyone’s trying to make a buck in the big cities by renting their flat which makes for a lot of choice to wade through and the potential to get either suckered or stuck with questionably clean sheets.  

With limited apartment hotel options in London and the need to lodge more than two people, here’s an Airbnb I can highly recommend.  This apartment is on the South Bank and a bit of a walk (12 minutes by my watch, more than that by my children’s watch) to nearest Tube station, but for what it lacks in obvious convenience it makes up for in being on a very cool, gentrified-within-the-last-5-years-street called Bermondsey.   Kids cool = Franco Manca (pizza) and The Watch House (mind-blowing pastries).  Grown up cool = Village East (bfast, cocktails),  Fuckoffee (coffee, wifi, questions from the 9 year old), Jose (tapas we wanted to have) and The Watch House (coffee, seriously… mind-blowing pastries.)

Not all of us can swing a hotel in South Kensington, so other neighborhoods to check out for lodging are Shoreditch, Clerkenwell and Southwark.   If traveling as a pair, our vote for best hotel /value is the citizenM Hotel in Southwark.   With several trips a month to London, my husband has sampled many hotels and has chosen his second home at The Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell.

Bonus tip:   Since we are on the topic of Airbnbs and big cities, here’s an apartment (this one centrally located) to recommend in Madrid. 

  • Showtime.

With more than 40 theatres in the West End, you can’t go to London and not see a show.  We saw “Bend if Like Beckham: The Musical” at the Phoenix Theatre.  It cost only 29 euros a person to be in the 6th row for a 2 ½ hour feel good celebration of sport and culture and girl power.   Show ends March 5.   For the best deals (like the one we got), go to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square at 10am (be prompt!) for day of tickets.  This method does require show flexibility.   Yes we wanted to see Lion King.  No we didn’t want to stand.

Bonus tip:  Not only is the art & design Victoria and Albert Museum free but it also has an excellent Theatre and Performance Collection.  It’s also the best of the trifecta of free museums in South Kensington (V&A, The Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum) to attempt on a busy Saturday morning.

  • Where to eat.

In London that’s not a fair question.  There are so many good places to eat.   Skip Trip Advisor for recommendations and see what Time Out London has to say.  Here’s a previous blog on places we like to eat in London, many of which we visited again.

Bonus tip:  Booking for dinner is always a good idea and turns out to be a necessary one when it’s Saturday and Valentine’s Day. We finally lucked out and got a late table at Rabot 1745, a restaurant in Borough Market where every dish includes cacao. The well established aphrodisiac.  On Valetine’s Day.  Makes sense why the 12 top table was available.

  • Chipotle clear.

We did eat at Chipotle and did not get sick.

Bonus tip:  If you are in London, be better than Chipotle. 

  • Little Pakistan (or not).

The first time we went to Tayyabs in Whitechapel we waited an hour for our reserved table.  On a weeknight.  The scene in the waiting area could only be described as complete chaos to us as Westerners but typical in other parts of the world.   The food:  worth every minute of waiting.  My husband wanted to bring the boys to give them a little window of what his trips to neighboring India have been (and tasted) like.  After all the buildup about the wait time and commotion this time we got seated in 2 minutes.  As for it feeling like Little Pakistan, it did not.  As for the taste … oh yes.

Bonus tip:  Spicy is the default so it you don’t want spicy, speak up or suffer.

  • All about cravings.

You don’t have to be a science nerd or interested in space to enjoy the Science Museum London.  Like right now there’s a special exhibit on Cravings and how food controls us as well as exhibits on Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci.  I’m just now realizing that we had cupcakes at The Hummingbird Bakery right after.

Bonus tip: Skip the 15 minute simulator on the The Mallard:  the world’s fastest steam locomotive (boring!) but do catch the IMAX Under the Sea showing. Trigger warning:  sea snakes. 

  • If you miss book stores.

You have to visit Foyles on Charing Cross Road.  If you bring your children, plan to park it for at least a couple of hours.   Not only does it have the biggest selection of children’s books I’ve ever seen but they are also conveniently located next to the biggest selection of cookbooks.

Bonus tip:   You also really need to visit Stanfords, the world’s biggest map and travel bookstore.  If you bring your husband, plan to leave with lots of detailed maps you’ll wonder why you’ll need in the age of Google.  The answer: country roads for cycling.

  • University scouting.

Back to back day trips for your 18 year old to visit two of the universities he’s been accepted into  seemed like such a good idea until you realize end to end travel time would be like going from Seattle to Portland on Thursday and then again on Friday.   Nobody wants to do that.   So because it’s about the university and not the city, he skipped beautiful Bath in favor of having a look see at Warwick.

Bonus tip:  beauty isn’t everything.  He loved Warwick.

  • Bow down to Nike.

No trip to London with boys is complete without a visit to the Niketown on Oxford Street.   Visits are that much better when a sales person tosses your 12 year old a basketball and asks if he can do the spider dribble … and it leads to a mini ball handling “performance.”

Bonus tip:  Only promise to buy a pair of socks.

  • Budget busters.

It’s no secret London is an expensive city but what will catch you by surprise is how much you spend on subways and buses.  Because I worked up a little budget to actual spreadsheet (this too shall pass), I know I spent 130 euros for 3 people over 3 ½ days.  (Under 12s ride free and working husbands are working and not transporting with you.)

Bonus tip:  Tap in AND out otherwise you’ll be charged for most expensive fare. 

  • Following in Cameron Diaz’s footsteps.

So no, we didn’t see her.  But our son Colin went to visit an old friend from Luxembourg who is now living in the village of Godalming, 45 minutes outside of central London, where the movie “The Holiday” was filmed.   Seems like a good place for a house exchange and apparently they have Laser Quest there too.

Bonus tip: If you can find them, play dates/hang outs while traveling are strongly encouraged. 

Our Travel Briefing is published when travel happens at various Luxembourg times and rarely updated.

What would you like to see here? Contact me at kateballbach@gmail.com.